Human Flourishing and Critical Realism in the Social Sciences

What is a human person? Human freedom? Human well-being? Human purpose? What sort of society enables persons to flourish? Few contemporary sociologists ask these big questions any longer because most have adopted a deeply flawed understanding of social science–the philosophy of logical positivism. This is because positivism is committed to materialist reductionism, causal determinism, moral relativism and methodological individualism, and must therefore deny the substantial reality of human persons, human freedom, human purpose and social goods. Sociologists have responded to this realization in various ways. Some urge us to double down positivism; others suggest that we do without any philosophical foundations; and still others recommend we simply stop trying to do science. We are not satisfied with any of these responses. We believe that sociology needs a new direction, a stronger and wider approach that will enable it to once again address the big questions that originally animated the discipline’s founders, specifically question about the human person, human freedom, human flourishing and their social preconditions. Reopening the social sciences to the big questions once again requires that it be rebuilt on a new foundation.

We believe that critical realism can provide a new approach, not only for sociology, but also for the social sciences and humanities more generally. Moving away from the flat and undifferentiated ontology of positivism, critical realism argues for the necessity of adopting an ontology irreducibly characterized by openness, stratification and difference in which natural and social scientific knowledge is no longer simply understood pragmatically or concerned with empirical laws or statistical generalizations. Instead, critical realism is concerned with knowledge of the things themselves; the structures, powers and capacities of things which make events in the world possible. Ethics is no longer simply relative to culture or personal choice, but is grounded in the capacities, capabilities, and well being of the human agent and the society of which she is part, and value becomes grounded in fact. Critical realism offers a complex and rich opportunity for science. Social science and the humanities to reassess their ontological commitments and develop a richer and more robust stance which moves out from under the shadow of positivism to reclaim the big questions of social theory. The Human Flourishing and Critical Realism in the Social Sciences Project was generously funded by the John Templeton Foundation with the goal of generating broader awareness and engagement with critical realism across disciplinary boundries.

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